Should prison inmates be allowed to earn a college education,or should officials just lock them in jail,throw away the key and let them fend for themselves?
The administrators at Ironwood State Prison,in Blythe,Calif.,don't think so; they have managed to build a program with Palo Verde Community College also in Blythe,Calif.,which will allow their inmates to receive a college education. The Ironwood –Palo Verde College Inmate Program is one of only two programs in the state that allow prison inmates to receive college degrees.
The inmates are actually enrolled in Palo Verde College,and are eligible to receive associate degrees that Palo Verde offers. To be eligible for enrollment an inmate must be eligible for parole,have at least two years left on their sentence,and no disciplinary problems for at least 12 months. Inmates attend classes via videotape located on an internal closed circuit,which feeds directly into their cells. The tapes are made by the course instructors. The students view these tapes at times when they are available,which can be ghostly hours of the night like two or three o'clock in the morning. The inmates take on a full load of classes in addition to other jobs assigned to them by the prison. Instructors visit their imprisoned students once each semester.
“The program has been extremely successful,” says Rick Babb,community resources coordinator of the college program at Ironwood State Prison.
Babb also commented that since the program has been in existence he has seen a decrease in gang activity and a breakdown of racial barriers in the prison.
“Those who are in program are less likely to be disruptive,” Babb said.
There is an off-duty staff employed by the college who monitor tests,and ensure that they are administered correctly and are not tampered with.
Textbooks are provided through a program called EOPS,or Extended Opportunity Program and Services,which is a state program that helps those who are economically or educationally disadvantaged. The Distance Education Program is the program that facilitates the program at Ironwood,and is provided for all in the community. Current state law prohibits the college from providing education strictly for inmates,and education must be equally available to the general population of the community.
There is only one similar program,which is offered by Patton University to inmates in San Quentin State Prison,in which the university decides who is eligible to participate in the program. To be eligible an inmate must be a part of the mainline population,and must have a high school diploma or GED. An all-volunteer staff operates this program,according to reports in the L.A. Times.
Not everyone is in favor of these programs. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is trying to stop the continuance of the Ironwood- Palo Verde College Inmate program,arguing that state-funded education to inmates is wrong,and cost too much money. This battle has been an ongoing issue and has grabbed the attention of California state senator John Burton,according to news reports in the L.A. Times.
“The more education they have the higher the chance that they will be productive citizens,” says Russ Heimerich,spokesman for the California Department of Corrections.
The program at Ironwood is almost three years old and has already graduated 19 students,and hopes to graduate 20-30 more in June of this year. There are currently 280 students enrolled in the program and 800 more on the waiting list.